Edinburgh notebook: ‘Rik Mayall was like Bad Santa to us’

Driving Rik Mayall around would be entertaining work for anyone, but for the young Red Richardson, the job he had in his 20s was the continuation of a childhood bond.

Mayall, who died suddenly in 2014 at the age of 56, was a near neighbour in South Devon, but he was also Richardson’s father’s close friend.

“When I was a kid I did not believe Rik was real because he was just so funny, non-stop,” said up-and-coming standup comedian Richardson, talking about his personal and professional links with the late comic actor for the first time. “He was like Bad Santa, this older person who swore and who secretly gave us tenners to go off and get things. It was funny being with him when I was five – and it was just as funny when I was 20.” Mayall and Red’s father, the director and screenwriter Peter Richardson, had worked together on a long string of anarchic television films made under the banner The Comic Strip Presents, radically changing the tone of British television comedy in 1982 with their early parody Five Go Mad in Dorset, and with the influential cinema feature The Supergrass, in 1985. The films were co-scripted, and increasingly also directed by Peter Richardson, who starred on screen alongside a core acting team of Nigel Planer, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.

Richardson Jr, 33, is in Edinburgh presenting his second full-length stand-up show, Shots Fired, at the fringe festival, and he now has another strong connection to his father’s great friend: last year he married Mayall’s daughter, Rosie.

“We had to cancel the wedding four times because of the pandemic. We booked a trip to Thailand and kept postponing,” said Richardson. “When we finally went, it rained for 20 days, but we had a good time.”

The standup has avoided speaking about his family in case people assumed it led him into comedy: “I kept it secret and was desperate that no one found out. It took me a while to realise it would come out at some point, so you have to deal with it,” he said, adding that in his own mind he is a family maverick.

“My father doesn’t know anyone in the standup world and has never performed in Edinburgh. He was often behind the camera anyway, so doesn’t get recognised much. When I was signed by an agent after the final of a stand-up competition, another act came up and said it had only happened because my dad was “Paul” Richardson. That sums it up really. People may still love The Comic Strip, but it was never a mainstream thing.”

As a boy he was there when several of his father’s films were being made. He watched as a favourite scene from 1998’s Four Men in a Car was shot. “It is an amazing quick sequence in which Rik gets his arm crushed, Dad is sick and is then thrown in the boot and then Adrian gets headbutted by a lorry driver.”

But for Red, the world of scripted comedy held no appeal. While he was driving for Mayall, he wrote to London’s Comedy Store club, won a try-out slot and fell in love with live gigs at the age of 25: “It was the best feeling ever. It’s the instant thing, the adrenaline. It’s a quite a fix.”

Rik Mayall was a leading member of The Comic Strip. Photograph: Mike Lawn/REX

His father, now 70, enjoys the slower process of writing and directing, but Richardson sees standup as his destination, rather than a route to TV. “For a lot of acts it is a springboard to something else. I write for some TV panel shows and I do podcasts, but that is just to build my live audience,” he said.

The new standup routine centres on a traumatic experience that made the news in November 2017. Along with many others, Richardson was caught up in an apparent terrorist attack on Oxford Street. London was on full alert until it became clear it was a false alarm: “I was hiding inside Boots, then I ran up to the top of a building and hid under a desk. Ever since watching Die Hard I’d wondered how I would deal with a situation like that, and actually I just ran and screamed like everyone else. In a split second everything changed. Everyone went into survival mode. Sensory awareness was heightened, so every sound was clear. I saw mums pick up their kids and run like Olympic sprinters. I just made a fool of myself, and that is funny.”

In comparison, the perils of live performance – the stage lighting and microphone both failed on the first night of his Edinburgh show two weeks ago – are insignificant: “It is a different show each time, but that night I felt like I was in an airport lounge and had just cornered a group of people to do a show for them. It is a tough career, with no security, no pension and lots of travel. But when it is good, it’s worth it.”

Richardson’s wife, Rosie, 35, tells him she is also happy he has chosen to be an entertainer, like her father. “She absolutely hates performing though and works as a manager at a Soho restaurant. And I think we both know that Rik was a one-off. You can’t learn what he had. He was comedically gifted: a phenomenon.”


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